German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday clashed in Moscow over human rights and democracy as they struggled to show a united front amid rising criticism from Germany.
Merkel, speaking alongside Putin in the Kremlin, said she was “irritated” by Russian laws clamping down on political organizations and condemned the sentencing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot.
Putin replied with accusations of gender inequality in Germany and discord in the EU.
Both leaders sought to see beyond the tensions even as the meeting exposed fissures between Germany, which is bankrolling the European debt crisis as the region’s largest economy, and Russia, the world’s largest energy exporter. German-Russian trade is worth US$83.5 billion, Putin said.
“My plea is not to see every criticism right away as destructive,” Merkel said at the German-Russian Petersburg Dialogue conference. “Our friendship won’t be better, our economic cooperation won’t be better, if we sweep everything under the carpet and only say when we’re of a single opinion.”
Merkel was visiting Moscow for the first time since Putin returned to Russia’s highest office in May. The trip follows a resolution passed last week in Germany’s lower house of parliament that criticizes Putin’s handling of opposition groups.
“The talks were anything but easy, but they were productive,” Putin said at a press conference after the two leaders held a joint Cabinet meeting.
Earlier, he said that Germany and Russia “have different views, we argue, we look for compromises, but this not a gloomy atmosphere.”
Lawmakers from five of the six parties in the Bundestag voted to condemn the treatment of opposition figures and civil organizations in Russia, such as this year’s prison sentences for members of Pussy Riot.
Merkel did not shy away from addressing the issue alongside Putin, who since last year has faced the biggest demonstrations against his 12-year rule.
“If we look at something like Pussy Riot, which has played a big role in the public sphere, then we say: ‘OK, that would also launch a big discussion if something like this happened in a church,’” Merkel said. “But if somebody has to end up as a young woman for two years in a labor camp, I don’t — it wouldn’t have been that way in Germany, at least.”
Putin accused one of the band members of participating in an anti-Semitic demonstration in the Russian capital, saying that Merkel knew too few of the details. He was pressed later by a reporter on the accusation and repeated the claim.
A lawyer for Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova disputed Putin’s claim, saying the demonstration in question portrayed the treatment of ethnic minorities under the government.